Republican lawmakers came to the defense of the state’s beleaguered affordable housing organization during a presentation of audit findings critical of the agency.
The Joint Legislative Auditing Committee formally heard the report Thursday; the audit of the Florida Housing Finance Corp. (FHFC), steward of both state and federal affordable housing money, was released in December.
Lawmakers focused on lavish events thrown for lenders and board members, including a $52,000 dinner with broiled lobster and filet mignon, and another that featured a $420 Spanish charcuterie station.
State audit manager Christi Alexander told the panel such expenses “did not appear to be clearly necessary” to the function of the agency.
But state Rep. Dan Raulerson, the panel’s vice chair and a CPA, said the first event was partly funded by corporate sponsorships, bringing its actual cost down to $36,000.
“I want us to make sure … we’re using common sense and good judgment,” said Raulerson, a Plant City Republican, but added that the dinners were to show appreciation for those helping the agency and furthering its affordable housing mission.
“Somebody lost their job over this, and that’s not right,” he said, referring to FHFC executive director Steve Auger‘s resignation just before Christmas. “I don’t think (the agency) did anything wrong … What they did was entirely within reason.
“We need to make sure folks have wiggle room … as to whether steak and lobster is OK or not,” he added.
State Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican, backed Raulerson and called the audit’s findings on the events “nitpicking.”
“I feel like we overreact to things sometimes,” he said. “I believe in hospitality; I believe in recognition ceremonies for my employees … An audit to me is, I want to know if they’re stealing money or wasting money. But if they’re doing a function they’re allowed to do, part of their authority is to decide how big a dinner to have.
“This is an opinion that they had too nice a dinner,” Baxley added.
On the other hand, Sen. Audrey Gibson said lawmakers shouldn’t “take (it) lightly.”
“Maybe $36,000 doesn’t matter to some of the people up here … but it means something to the folks in some of our communities,” the Jacksonville Democrat said.
Ken Reecy, FHFC’s interim executive director, said the deficiencies pointed out in the audit – including problems with financial controls – were being corrected. He also said private dollars, not any state funding, were used to pay for events.
But future dinners aren’t planned: “We will find other ways to maintain the critical relationships we have with the banks that assist us in our mission of affordable homeownership,” Reecy added.